The Bike Industry’s Sharpest Minds on How to Make Roads Safer for Cyclists
Eleven experts weigh in with their biggest, craziest ideas—all of which are eminently doable
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Last November, the Colorado Department of Transportation (CDOT) launched a contest soliciting ideas on how to protect cyclists and pedestrians from cars. The five finalists, which should be announced later this spring, will each receive $10,000 and get entered into a second competition with a $225,000 pot.
While CDOT’s judges deliberate, we went ahead and asked 11 of the brightest minds in the bike industry what they would do to make U.S. cities better, safer, and smarter for the two-wheeled crowd. Here’s what they had to say.
1. Become an Advocate—And Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is
Leah Flickinger, editor of Bicycling magazine
Bicycling recently published a report on the fraught relationship between cyclists and drivers. As part of that story, we asked readers to take a survey on riding habits, road safety, and driver behaviors. The results were bleak: Three-quarters of respondents know at least one cyclist who’s been hit; 22 percent know a cyclist who was killed. One-third have been hit themselves, and 66 percent say they see distracted drivers on most or every ride.
The takeaway wasn’t all grim. Almost everyone told us they’re still getting out there. And the sheer number of responses—5,325 people in just a few days, thousands of whom shared personal stories—is encouraging. Cyclists are fired up and have a lot to say.
But checking off boxes in a survey isn’t enough. Every one of us needs to start making noise. For starters, you should contact your elected officials. At a time when the government is cutting funding to vital services, we need to rally harder than ever around legislation designed to protect cyclists and improve infrastructure. The two biggest national bike advocacy groups are the League of American Bicyclists and People for Bikes, and both websites have easy-to-use tools for understanding bike legislation and contacting local officials.
It’s also important to report incidents, even if no one is harmed. In some states, reports go into a database that law enforcement can use to establish patterns of behavior. In Colorado, for example, if the same plate number shows up three times, the driver gets a warning. And in some places, even harassment by a driver is a felony, and reporting incidents may affect local policy.
Finally, open your wallet and donate money to support bike advocacy. If the 5,325 people who responded to our survey donated $25 each, it would be enough to fund roughly 100 community grants that support safe streets for cycling.
2. Take Baby Steps
Kristin Armstrong Savola, three-time Olympic time trial gold medalist
I personally believe that every city should have colored, separated bike lanes, just like they do in Holland. But I am a realist, and this is just not reality here in the United States. Some cities are just more committed to bike safety and further along in the urban progression than others.
In my mind, the best path forward is progressively moving from stage to stage and taking incremental steps to make the roads safer for everyone. Once bike safety advocates make it to one stage—like colored bike lanes—you can start to consider the next one.
3. Build Smart Bike Lanes with Empathy
Jillian Harris, senior transportation planner for the City of San Antonio
From an engineering and transportation-planning perspective, new designs that support the notion of separated bike facilities can make cycling in urban areas much safer. However, this option is only as effective as the designs, and people must use them as intended. Several factors go into installing protected bike lanes and how they fit into the overall transportation network, and the reality is that nothing happens in a vacuum. Anything you do for cyclists should be integrated into the big picture.
There’s a lot to be said for empathy, too. Most bicyclists also drive cars, but the same can’t be said the other way around. The notion of walking (or riding) a mile in someone else’s shoes could go a long way in generating respect for other people on the road. Policymakers should ride bikes around their districts to understand what their constituents experience and what could be done to make bike networks better for everyone.
4. Lobby More Effectively
Jonathan Maus, editor and publisher of BikePortland.org
The United States has fallen way behind in cycling and traffic safety because we don’t do enough to curtail and regulate automobile use. The auto lobby is kicking our butts, and too many of us don’t seem to mind. Far too often, we settle for incremental progress—a new bike lane here, a new bike law there—when what’s needed are big, bold changes in both culture and infrastructure.
Socially, we need to start calling out dangerous driving and our addiction to cars for what it is: deviant and extreme behavior. Driving drunk, driving over the speed limit, hit-and-run, distracted driving—these behaviors have been practically normalized in our culture. The results are streets where people drive amok, and everyone not inside a motor vehicle pays the price.
To make urban cycling great again, we need to address the enemy head-on. Car abuse and overuse must be stopped. We need stronger car control laws. We need elected officials who aren’t afraid to reallocate road space to more efficient, healthy, and safe uses like cycling, mass transit, and walking.
5. Turn Wasteland into Bike Lanes
Colin Strickland, professional road and cyclocross racer
Many urban areas have a wealth of underutilized rail, utility, and drainage easements that could be developed into safe and efficient cycling infrastructure. Examples can be found along train tracks (Fayetteville, Arkansas), pipelines and power lines (Austin, Texas), river greenbelts (Santa Rosa, California; Tulsa, Oklahoma), and even adjacent to highways (Reno, Nevada). Existing easements help remove cars from the equation while keeping cyclists moving in an efficient linear direction.
Why is it important to take advantage of existing easements? Simple: Cars and bikes do not mix, so the more separation you can create between the two, the safer everyone will be. Painted-on bicycle lane designations may provide theoretical separation, but they are still vulnerable to distracted and inept drivers.
6. Solicit Public Input
Brian Wiedenmeier, executive director of the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition
Pilot projects can help us learn about how treatments are applied, and we should solicit feedback from people walking, driving, and biking in and around new infrastructure. This spirit informed the design and construction of San Francisco’s first physically protected intersection at Division and Ninth Streets. Popular in Europe’s most bike-friendly cities and increasingly seen in progressive U.S. cities, protected intersections take the chaos out of crossing the street. With physical barriers and wider turns for drivers, these protected intersections reduce speeds, calm traffic, and offer bicyclists and pedestrians a clear, protected route through the intersection.
7. Adjust Traffic Signals
Rachel Bronson, bicycle planner for Denver County
Denver Public Works Transportation and Mobility is keeping people moving on city streets by adjusting traffic signal times at several intersections and installing special equipment to accommodate people on bikes and people in cars separately. At certain intersections, we have bike traffic lights that light up at a different time than for cars.
About two years ago, we also installed bike detection, so people on bikes can trigger green lights at several intersections around town. And last year, we synchronized the traffic signals along the most popular stretch for bikes in Denver so they can catch the “green wave” and make fewer stops during morning rush hour. These treatments are smaller in cost and less visible to the casual observer, but they have a big impact to bicycle mobility and safety on our streets.
8. Make Ice-Cream Runs Mandatory…
Ryan Schutz, executive director of Bikes Together
Here’s my unconventional idea: I think we can make biking on city streets safer by requiring everyone to ride bikes to the ice cream shop at least once a week during the summer. I’m serious. Everyone would get access to a bike, whether they have one or not, through community-focused bike-sharing programs.
This weekly ride would help people understand just how easy it is to hop on a bike and ride somewhere familiar. Everyone would become more confident with each ride, encouraging further exploration of biking in the city. As a bonus, everyone would be learning what it feels like to ride a bicycle through the city, and a greater sense of empathy would be created between drivers and people on bikes.
9. …And Bike Education, Too
Tim Blumenthal, president of PeopleForBikes.org
The United States should adapt the time-tested Dutch practice of providing mandatory bike education to children—once in elementary school (basic bike handling and safety instruction) and once in middle school (focused on navigating in traffic that includes cars, trucks, bikes, and people on foot). The result: better drivers and better bike riders and a safer road environment.
It will also help for bicycles and bike riders to become increasingly visible through the use of lighting systems improvements, frame paint, bike-integrated turn signals, wheel illumination, clothing, and solar-powered, road-embedded lights and lane lighting. These improvements will further reduce (but not eliminate) crashes.
Naturally, we should continue to build seamless bike networks that are completely separate from motor vehicle traffic. These networks are essential to get children, new riders of all ages, families, and older people on bikes—particularly as the overall population continues to grow and places become more crowded.
10. Ban the Big Rigs
Austin Horse, bike messenger, courier-style racer, Red Bull athlete
Until we have a world of self-driving cars, I feel that reckless drivers are an unfortunate reality of the road.
In the meantime, we should do everything we can to get big rigs away from urban areas. Aggressive driving aside, it’s beyond nerve-wracking to put your faith in a semi with an open chassis and huge wheels that could easily suck you under and crush you. In the future, I think we will see pedestrian-friendly, lightweight, highly mobile cargo delivery services provided by e-trikes and existing cargo bikes. But until then, we need laws to make these rolling tanks unwelcome in places with high concentrations of cyclists.
11. Harness Our Technology
Eben Weiss, editor of Bike Snob NYC, author, cycling culture critic
We already know that better infrastructure—like protected bike lanes—makes the roads safer for everybody. That’s why any self-respecting, forward-thinking American city is upgrading its streets to accommodate cyclists. At this point, we’re merely playing catch-up to places like Amsterdam and Copenhagen.
What needs to happen now is for road safety to enter the 21st century. It seems like every time I want to stream Game of Thrones on HBO GO, I’m asked to enter an activation code to prove I’m a subscriber. It’s like I’m launching a nuclear missile. Yet if I want to fire up my car—not quite a nuke but certainly a deadly weapon—I don’t have to prove a thing. My license could be expired or suspended or revoked or simply nonexistent. Same with my insurance policy. Why shouldn’t I have to prove my “account” as a driver is in good standing before I operate a motor vehicle on public roads? We need to start placing as much value on human lives as we do on George R.R. Martin’s intellectual property.
Then there’s my phone. When I hop in the car, it guesses where I’m going and pings me with directions, ETA, and even traffic-avoidance advice. Yet it’s more than happy to play dumb and let me call, text, or FaceTime even if I’m doing 90 miles per hour on the interstate. Phones should disable these features when drivers are operating their cars—or at the very least remind them to slow down when they’re breaking the law.
Municipalities need to be incentivized to implement street safety improvements. The New York Court of Appeals recently ruled that New York City can be held liable for failing to prevent reckless driving through street design. This could be an incentive for the city to act more decisively when it comes to upgrading the streets and to stop yielding to nimbys who prioritize street parking over public safety.